My annual GIS curriculum review

Every summer, I perform a self-imposed curriculum review of the five GIS courses I teach each year.  I think about the topics included and their sequence, and which course they belong in.  I make notes to myself throughout the year about what topics need work, what examples worked well or fell flat, or what new ideas I want to try out.  Some of these notes are made on hidden slides right in the PowerPoint file (e.g., Edit: break the following slide into three separate slides with a map example for each) and some in a Word file with headings for each course as well as for things like PowerPoint design, workflow, and administration.

Four of the courses I teach are in a sequence: introduction, intermediate, advanced, and a capstone project course (the fifth is an introductory GIS course at the graduate level).  I start out with about 160 students in the first course, and then lose about half with each subsequent course, ending up with about 20 in the capstone course.  The tricky part is trying to decide what students should learn if they are going to take only one GIS course vs. those who take two, or three, or four.  I wish it were as easy as consulting the GIS & T Body of Knowledge and/or the Geospatial Technology Competency Model and following a template, but it’s not that simple.

It seems as though I have three sets of students: those who just want one GIS course, often to satisfy a degree requirement for a “methods” course; those who take two courses, because they have heard that GIS is a marketable skill and hope that two will be “enough” to help them get a job; and those who take three or four, and see GIS as something that has the potential to become a substantial part of their careers (I realize these are generalizations, but I have a hunch they are roughly accurate, although it makes me think I should really conduct a survey).

What are the objectives for an introductory GIS course? When I first started teaching, a colleague of mine told me “just give them enough to make them dangerous”.  I know he was trying to be funny, but I actually took it as a warning and a challenge.  The last thing I wanted was for students, for which this would be their only GIS course, to finish the course  thinking they had a certain mastery of GIS when, as the joke implied, they would be unwittingly making all sorts of egregious errors and assumptions, churning out spurious results and coming to erroneous conclusions, all thanks to me!

If my introductory course really is the only GIS course half of the students will take, then I want to make sure that they are able to: find data sets and judge whether they are appropriate (by knowing about and critically appraising the metadata); choose an appropriate map projection; edit attribute tables and do field calculations; perform spatial and attribute queries; apply spatial problem-solving skills to formulate and execute basic analysis using distance and overlay; and then create a well-designed map that incorporates basic cartographic principles to clearly communicate the information and message they want to convey.  I am trying to be realistic about how much I can fit into a 12 week term and what a student should be able to accomplish once they have completed the course.  All along the way, I try to emphasize the why as much as the how, so that students can make informed decisions at each stage of a project instead of relying on simply remembering a sequence of procedures.  The challenge is to balance the development of functional skills with the creation of a strong theoretical foundation, so that students are well prepared both technically and conceptually.

The topics in the intermediate and advanced courses are not as tightly connected to each other.  For half of the students in the intermediate course, that will be their last GIS course, so I make sure to cover other popular and/or practical skills and topics they might need such as digitizing, geocoding, basic remote sensing concepts, raster analysis, and geoprocessing using ModelBuilder.  My advanced course includes topics such as GPS, terrain analysis, surface interpolation, and GIS design and implementation.

My annual curriculum review is something that I look forward to.  It gives me the opportunity to shake off the day-to-day concerns that often preoccupy me during the school year and take a fresh look at what I can improve for the next time around.  As always, I would love to hear your thoughts – what guides your choice of topics for a given course?

 

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